Why I Haven’t Read a Novel Lately.

I’m halfway through a draft of a novel.  When drafting new prose, I don’t read other novels.  That’s not unusual; many people worry about unintentionally aping another writer’s style.  But I’ve got a whole other level of crazy going on.

Years ago, I spent a few months doing pro bono freelance writing and editing for a nonprofit whose aim was to get art and music into local public schools.  At one of the meetings someone told me an anecdote about her friend Jacob*, a university art professor, and his five-year-old daughter.  Their reported conversation went something like this:

Daughter: Daddy, what do you do for work?

Jacob: I teach grownups how to draw.

Daughter: (aghast pause) … You mean they forget?

I’ve been thinking about that conversation lately because I’ve been dealing with a child who, contrary to everything I understand of children, simply would not draw.

I was always the kind of child who would be quiet indefinitely at a restaurant if you handed her a pen and the back of a paper placemat, and so I have always assumed that children naturally drew pictures for pleasure, whether they were good at it or not.  I thought that self-criticism was a faculty that came much, much later to spoil the fun.

But this little girl, far past the age when this was developmentally appropriate, would only ball a crayon up in her fist and make merciless, crayon-snapping scribbles on any paper given to her.  Sometimes she would ask other people to draw things for her, but if she tried to draw so much as a circle, she would look at it, say “That’s not right!”, in a tone just this side of panic.

There was no pressure for her to perform, especially not at first.  But eventually my concern began to bleed through, and made it worse.  I wasn’t concerned about her skill level, but about her dread of the process.  Aren’t children supposed to run to you excited about a portrait that looks like spaghetti dropped from a great height?  They’re not supposed to stare moodily at their work and feel crushed by its inadequacy.

Some had tried to demonstrate the fun of drawing for her by doing it themselves, but I quickly realized that part of the problem was her comparing her drawings to adults’, so I categorically forbade any adult to draw anything for her, no matter how she begged.

Last week, we had a breakthrough.  She asked me to draw her a rose.  Instead of gently declining the request the way I usually do, I said excitedly, “Hey, want me to show you how?”  We sat down, and with hands firmly behind my back I instructed her to draw a circle, and then a line coming down from it.  “Look!” I said.  “It’s a rose!  Now you can make it any color you want.”  I’m not sure why this was the breakthrough, but suddenly she spent half the afternoon drawing lollipop “roses” in every color.

The next week, I instructed her to add an extra line to the lollipop, and called it a person.  She caught onto this quickly, and then within a few hours, without my even being in the room, she was drawing intricate people (for her age), people with limbs I hadn’t told her how to draw, people with hair and smiling mouths and the right color clothing to match the Disney character she had in mind.  As if she’d suddenly caught up to a year and a half of delayed development in a matter of hours.

But it wasn’t her mastery that delighted me.  It was the way she grabbed my hand and dragged me in to show me.  The way she insisted on taping them to the wall, herself, to look at in perpetuity.  The way she stopped thinking of art as pass/fail, and instead as a way to communicate something inside herself (in this case, a deep fascination with the movie Tangled).  Instead of seeing what the drawing wasn’t, she could finally see what it was.

I find myself envying her.  I wish that, knowing how flawed my work is, I could still feel happy about it.  I wish I could be proud that, to whatever limited extent I’m capable, I captured something that is important to me.  But I’m the little girl sitting in front of a piece of paper near tears, looking at what the grownups drew and knowing I can never, never, not in a million years, do that.  It’s as paralyzing for me as it was for her.

So no, I won’t be reading any of my favorite authors, not until my drawing is finished.  Will that stop me from being crushed by shame over its weaknesses?  No.  But at that point my shame cannot undraw it.

*Not his real name.  Not for his protection, I just honestly don’t remember.
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